"I absolutely hate losing at The Hump, and I apologize to our fans," said senior guard Shane Power. "And now we've dug ourselves a hole."
The Dogs didn't have to do all the digging this night. Not with LSU big men Brandon Bass and Glen Davis thoroughly dominating play around the hole, at least on the offensive end. Soph forward Bass scored a game-best 21 points while freshman center Davis muscled for 19 more. Not only did the frontcourt pair score half their team's total, but they were a combined 15-of-22 shooting with ten more free throws.
"I've said they have the best frontcourt in the league," Coach Rick Stansbury noted. This night they might have been the best pairing in the whole land. "They've got two All-Americans in the post and I thought they did a great job," said Power.
The duo certainly did the job just when it seemed the Bulldogs had created a chance at a comeback. With four minutes left MSU All-American Lawrence Roberts dunked and senior forward Ontario Harper scored a loose-ball layup, pulling State within 65-60. LSU didn't hesitate to take the ball inside with the 300-pound ‘Baby Shaq' Davis driving for the goal. Roberts stood his ground and they collided, hard, drawing a whistle.
The call was a block, and Roberts' fifth foul at 3:01. It was not a shooting situation yet, and LSU missed the ensuing shot. But State center Marcus Campbell didn't hang on to the loose ball and Bass did for a dunk at 2:32.
"We get a stop and the ball comes off, and Campbell fumbles it off," Stansbury said. "It was a huge play." A Power turnover later Davis scored in transition, the Tigers were up by nine, and the Bulldogs were done.
"We just got out-toughed today," Harper said. "That's real hard to admit."
Even knowing the quality of LSU's frontcourt, it was still hard for the Dogs to accept being outscored 50-32 in the paint as Bass and Davis were nearly automatic. "They basically did what they wanted to with the ball," Harper said. "They just took advantage of us down there."
Davis in particular took advantage of his bulk and surprising quickness. Held to just three points in the first meeting with State, the freshman was 8-of-11 from the field with nine rebounds and outplayed MSU's veteran front line no matter the matchup. "He was an aggressor in there," said Stansbury. "Everything he got was around the hole. He moves and rebounds, his hands are like magnets."
Roberts tried to match the Tiger tandem and he did collect 14 rebounds. But he again struggled against double-team defenses and was 6-of-14 shooting, and a frustrating 1-of-6 at the foul line for 13 points before fouling out after 31 hard minutes. Senior Campbell was only 2-of-8 with five points and eight boards and clearly outplayed by the new kid on the SEC block.
The 6-5 Harper ended up defending Davis as often as anyone, and chipped in 11 points on offense. But the primary scoring spark came from the Bulldog backcourt. Power, not entirely healthy yet, had a MSU-career night with 20 points and threw in five three-point goals in six tries. And after missing eight games with a broken foot suffered January 8, senior guard Winsome Frazier came off the bench for 11 points with a pair of treys.
"I probably didn't expect him to play well, to be honest," Stansbury said. "For a guy who hadn't done anything for weeks he had a great night."
"I was happy to be out there with my teammates again," smiled Frazier, who said his left foot hurt just a bit but was not a problem. "The team needed me! It was a lot of minutes, I was expecting to play like 15 just to get in a groove. But Coach had faith in me and I had faith in myself, so I stayed out there and contributed."
Frazier's contributions may well have made the difference in keeping the game tight in the first half. After taking a 7-4 lead two minutes in, the Dogs could not keep Bass and Davis from taking over. Campbell certainly was unable to cope, with two quick fouls, and the big Tigers reeled off nine-straight points. State went four minutes without scoring until Roberts looped in a bucket at 14:35, but it was still a nine-point deficit when Frazier entered at 13:03.
The momentum turned as Roberts blocked a shot and point guard Gary Ervin raced the other way for a layup and three-point play at 12:31. Power got open for a three-pointer, as did Frazier. His first shot tied the game and his second gave MSU a 21-18 lead. Power came back with two more threes for a 27-23 advantage at 8:28.
"It felt like the State of old, that explosive team with good spurtability," Power said. "But from there we just didn't get any stops and we let them back into the game." Indeed, LSU answered with another nine-point burst to regain the lead. LSU answered with a nine-point run before Campbell, after a series of silly shots, scored a rebound with a foul for three points. A couple of ties later a Slater free throw had State up 37-36, but the Tigers got buckets from Davis and Mitchell and held a 41-37 halftime advantage.
The second half played out all too similarly to State's loss at LSU. A Harper free throw at 18:04 evened the second-half count 41-all when Bass canned a turnaround jumper that put LSU in front again, and to stay. Even as he and Davis collected fouls the Tigers still built momentum, using not just muscle but speed that outran MSU's baffled defense. When guard Tack Minor tossed in a trey—LSU only had three threes all night—it was a 60-44 score at 11:35 and Roberts had four fouls already.
He managed to last over eight game-minutes before collecting the fifth, and with help from Power and Frazier the Dogs clawed back into contention. "We fought back and got it down to five," Frazier said. "After that I don't know what happened."
Harper did, and didn't like it. "They out-hustled us on our home court, and that's unheard-of."
Almost as incredible to witnesses, State actually ended up with one more rebound—40 to 39. But when the caroms counted most, a Tiger got to it first…usually Bass with 17 total boards. His ‘double-double' outshone Robert's 14th of the season. The Bulldogs, who had largely beaten Vanderbilt in their last outing from the foul line, also went cold here by missing half their 24 attempts. Or, more than enough to make up the final deficit.
Which is why the Dogs took the loss so hard. "We needed this game," said Frazier."I guess we'll drop down (in the SEC standings) now. But things happen."
From LSU's standpoint what happened was the first sweep of a season series with State since 1993. The Tigers also took a huge step towards not just finishing second in the Division, but winning a postseason berth. The Bulldogs are still in reasonably strong NCAA-shape, but the defeat was still very, very hard to accept.
"It's very devastating," said Power.
Stansbury gave the rivals credit for showing more toughness than the home team, another difficult admission by a Bulldog. And with a road trip to unhappy Kentucky immediately ahead, the situation is suddenly much more difficult for Mississippi State.
"Everybody loses games," Stansbury said. "There's five more games left. We're going to a tough environment against a tough team. We've got them coming off a loss, too, which won't help matters. But we'll go up there and get after it."